Does Social Media Mean You Should Rethink Your Brand? Yes, For At Least One Brand

I bet you think I'm talking about Groupon here, which faced a well-deserved firestorm of online protest over its Super Bowl ad that actually mocked the plight of the people of Tibet to get more people to sign up for pedicure discounts. (OK, that's the Cliff Notes version.)

But I'm not. I'm still hung up on Kenneth Cole, who last week, infamously tweeted: "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new collection is now available online at --KC."

Whoops. Or "not whoops," I mean. Here's why I wouldn't classify this as a mere, ill-considered slip-up, but something deeper: I first heard about this politically insensitive tweet when Business Insider's Henry Blodgett mused about it on Twitter, saying:  "Hey, @kennethcole, who's the idiot who sent this tweet? Has he/she been fired yet?" 

But reading the tweet, I thought to myself, well, actually, that sounds exactly like Kenneth Cole himself. I couldn't put a finger on it -- but the tweet seemed to echo the tone and outrageous sensibility of Kenneth Cole print ads I just couldn't call up from the back recesses of my brain at the time. He meant it. Google did the work for me of conjuring up those ads, and, as I thought, the tweet was completely in keeping with the Kenneth Cole brand. Examples? You got 'em:

·      When Imelda Marcos and her president/dictator husband were exiled from the Philippines after the 1986 revolution, she left behind a rather large shoe collection. Kenneth Cole ran an ad with the headline: ""Imelda Marcos bought 2,700 pairs of shoes. She could've at least had the courtesy to buy a pair of ours."

But that's just a warm-up. Here are some other gems (with a hat tip to the former "Lies Well Disguised" feature on Gawker):

·      Post 9/11: An ad that said "GOD DRESS AMERICA."

·      Another that said: "On Sept. 12th, families returned to the dining room table.

·      After Katrina: "Hurricanes aren't ending. And bird flu is now coming.

·      And this one, its time frame not completely clear: "The ports are secure. But there are other things DUBAI."

Though Cole has certainly done his share of good works - and often promoted them through his advertising --  he is capable of exploiting any news event in the name of selling shoes. It doesn't matter if thousands of people are protesting or dying or homeless -- or whether the wife of an ousted dictator owns thousands of shoes.

The difference, this time, was that Cole effectively posted his ad on Twitter -- and, as he's now discovered, the platform makes all the difference. The previous examples were all print ads, with most of them predating Twitter and other social platforms. In Marcos' case, the ad even pre-dated the Web. So while columnists expressed outrage at some of the ads above, the outrage was containable; in other words, just enough to give the brand a few headlines, but not enough to damage it. The pros of being in the public eye outweighed the cons. But now the balance has shifted, and Kenneth Cole can't keep the outrage set at 11; not when an ill-considered tweet turns into a wildfire.

Therefore, I'd argue, Kenneth Cole has to rethink not only what he tweets, but what his brand is. It can't be about controversy for the sake of controversy anymore. That's just too dangerous.

The good news, if Cole will heed it, is that he could, potentially, use those same channels to amplify the good things he's done with his advertising, particularly in supporting causes that he has championed for decades, like HIV/AIDS awareness,. Leveraging social channels to do good is harder than using them to dial up controversy, but we all know doing this tweeting business well is harder than it looks.

Kenneth Cole, it's time to change your brand.

7 comments about "Does Social Media Mean You Should Rethink Your Brand? Yes, For At Least One Brand ".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, February 10, 2011 at 3:22 p.m.

    In my heart, I agree with you. But this AdAge story suggests that it all made no difference at all, and if anything might have increased interest in the Kenneth Cole brand.

  2. Catherine Ventura from @catherinventura, February 10, 2011 at 3:42 p.m.

    Excellent post, Catharine.

  3. Steve Sarner from Tagged, February 10, 2011 at 8:26 p.m.

    That is a VERY interesting perspective Cathy....important message for many brands in the social media medium.

  4. Jon Bond from The Shipyard, February 10, 2011 at 11:14 p.m.

    Richard Kirshenbaum and I wrote the imelda macros ad. The first in Cole's 25 year old " current events" campaign.
    The later ads ( after Kenneth took the business in house)
    Never lived up to the original ads. Imelda marcos and her 2500 shoes, c' mon, that's comical. The ad would've been tweeted around the universe today and have worked even better.the problem with the current ads isn't social media, it's bad advertising seen as trying to profit from major disasters. The purpose of the campaign was social. No media plan, we'd wait for an event and then respond in real time. Sound familiar? The underlying principles of viral have little to do with social media, they have to do with human nature, which hasn't changed.

  5. kumar zodiac, February 11, 2011 at 10:28 a.m.

    Really its a very interesting perspective...

  6. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry, February 11, 2011 at 11:06 a.m.

    Would everyone just lighten up on Kenneth Cole? Is Social Media ushing in a renewed era of "political correctness?" Are we not allowed to differentiate ourselves with (caustic) humor?

    It would help to step back for a moment, take a deep breath, and understand the two key dynamics are at play here. First, that no matter what you do, 30% of people just won't get it. They won't get the humor. They're unclear on what you have to say. They get offended by the most asinine things. The second is that with the tools of Social Media, we've in essence handed a megaphone to anyone who cares to comment on our efforts. And the whiners seem to have no problem picking it up.

    So the marketer is left with two possibilities: speak with one consistent, differentiating voice (which Kenneth Cole has been doing for 20+ years) knowing that you're going to rub some folks the wrong way (but also speak to your loyalists). Or "crowd source" your creative and dumb down your messaging until no one is offended and it all just blends into the morass of clutter we find ourselves immersed in.

    Personally, I'm surprised Kenneth Cole execs were so quick to apologize for this. Hey, that's who they are. That's their personality. If you don't like it (or are "offended"), then don't buy their shoes. And spend your social media efforts on a cause that is truly offending, not trivial.

  7. Denner Etherton from CEO, February 14, 2011 at 2:03 a.m.

    Yes i also agree with you and thanks to write that post.
    <a href="">tv by internet</a>

Next story loading loading..